Cooking with Gail Vaz-Oxlade

“No, stop! Stop right now!”

She bellows at me, in a voice she I imagine she typically reserves for couples about to max out their final credit card—at 29.99%.

“Grate it once! Only once! The pith is bitta and we don’t want it in the soup!”

I laugh and immediately revise my technique, mentally adding this to the list of cooking tips I’m learning from Gail Vaz-Oxlade.

I realise this is not what most people would imagine doing with the finance guru. As I watched her shows Til Debt Do Us Part, and Money Moron; as I read her many books on debt freedom and common-sense financial planning; as I listened to her patiently explaining the system of living on cash to clip outlandish spending, I often thought she’d be an interesting person to meet.

Cooking with her never really crossed my mind.

Nevertheless, here we are in her bright, airy kitchen in Brighton, Ontario, cooking a five-course Jamaican-inspired meal—at two in the afternoon.

Hell, we’re both professional writers. We can do anything we damn well please at two in the afternoon. 😉

When I asked Gail to be one of my fifty food dates, she actually agreed – much to my amusement. At first we were going to cook virtually, but five courses seemed like a little too much bandwidth, so we decided I’d come over. (Okay, I kind of invited myself over and she, being the generous person she is, said “of course, baby.”)

“I’m pretty accessible,” she says as she sits in my passenger seat on the way to No Frills to pick up our ingredients.
“Yeah, obviously.” I give her a look. She laughs.
Since she detests horseradish and eggplant, I tell her we’ll be making an eggplant ratatouille with horseradish sauce.
“You’re a real asshole,” she tells me with a grin.
I wink. “You might as well know it now!”
We’re going to get along just fine.

Shopping is an adventure in itself. I ask her if I can take some pictures—she poses in front of every item, and exaggerates excitement at the prices. Though seriously, those discounts are no joke. I have to shop at No Frills more often…

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Back at the house, we begin our afternoon with a guacamole. Only this one has pomegranate seeds bursting with every bite. Mmm. I could be in trouble…

After a quick rest, I dish out layered salad with 14% sour cream. Ever tried it? O.M.G. Paired with crab and pepper/tomato salsa, it’s heaven in a cup.

Am I at all unnerved to be sitting next to Gail Vaz-Oxlade, discussing debt rolling strategies?

No! Because actually we’re talking about children’s books. And school choices for out-of-the-box kids. And soup, which we’re about to start. 🙂

The sweet potato and lime soup is something I’ve been looking forward to, and I can’t resist sneaking into the kitchen to see exactly how it’s done. Gail is steps ahead of me, though. She’s already roasted the sweet potato until it’s almost bursting out of its skin. I can smell the slightly nutty aroma as she opens the oven door. Stock, lime zest (minus the pith), lime juice… and maybe a little sour cream to round it all off.

The stock is something left over from last night’s dinner. A complex melding of ingredients including spices I’ve never used in my life. And it smells transformative.

“Oh.” Gail rolls her eyes upward in delight. “Try this.”
She hands me the spoon and I hesitate. My rampant germaphobia is not something I typically discuss, but oh my Lord, sharing straws and forks and cups gives me the heebie-jeebies. Still, I agreed when I set out on this fifty-food date quest that I would be embracing ch—change.

The two-hour drive on the 401 was not quite enough of a challenge, apparently.

So…I take the spoon. I try the soup. It is indeed amazing.

But I have to tell her. “I can’t remember the last time I volunteered to share a spoon with anyone, Gail.”
Well, now she’s going to have fun with me, isn’t she?

You’ve watched the shows, right? As if she’s letting that go!

“Now, weird child who doesn’t like to touch anything… see me wash my hands?”

Yes, yes I do. Kitchen etiquette is something you can’t appreciate enough in a person!

She finishes the preparations on her meal and we decide to take a respite from eating. SO. GOOD.

We lounge outside, waiting for the soup to digest and the chicken to finish cooking. It’s a gorgeous day, and Gail has a lush, meaningful garden—a place she likes to sit in.

We talk about a lot of things, and half an hour in, I realise there’s something I want to ask her—not finance or cooking related, but personal. Gail’s not just a chef or an author: she’s a woman who’s been through a lot of interesting times. Married and divorced thrice—still vibrant and creative and unapologetic after all of that.

I’ve been through some interesting times in my own relationship over the past ten years. We’ve weathered some really tough storms and always managed to come out intact; but occasionally I wonder if it’s love or just sheer stubbornness that keeps us together. Would I ever be the one to say out? Would I know it was time?

So I ask her: “How do you know when a relationship is finished? How do you know it isn’t just in a valley or a slump?”
She looks at me. Considers. “If you have any doubt at all, it’s not finished.”
Simple as that.
Maybe a lot of things are like that…
She’s been through it three times. It’s been over three times—without a doubt.
Now she’s happy with the pie in the fridge—it’s still there when she gets back, ready to eat it.

I digest her insight along with the jerk chicken: warm, sensual, fall-off-the-bone thigh with just a hint of apricot and a kick to the top of the palette. It’s my first Jamaican hot dish, and I’m sorry I don’t have room for more. I feel settled for a second. My mind has muted—a rare occurrence. Relationship advice with a side of Scotch bonnet.

We fall quiet, eating the last morsels of beans and rice—a dish Jamaicans call rice and peas… Yes. There is a reason. But this blog post is getting too long.

It’s been five hours. We’ve had a glorious time, and talked about everything imaginable (seriously—we have to stay friends forever now, because we both know way too much). We’ve eaten four courses.

Gail’s eyelids are starting to droop. Stunning though it may seem, she’s as much an introvert as I am—we both get tired in public and need to recharge alone.
“You’re tired,” I say.
She looks up. “You can tell?”
“I can. Let’s have our sorbet and call it a day.” I still have a two-hour drive ahead of me, and I want to put my toddler to bed. The best part about stretching my wings is coming home at the end of the day, and I want to kiss my little one goodnight.
We’re both full, too. Just like my mother warned me I would be.

“Is it just the sorbet?” Gail asks.
“Are you going to do anything with it?”
She guffaws, her hazel eyes dancing. “You lazy cow!” Part disbelief, part admiration.

I wink and run downstairs to grab the sorbet from the freezer. While I’m gone, she hauls out gooseberries from the fridge—something I may have had before as a garnish on a dessert, but never actually eaten for its own sake.

“We can’t do nothing with it,” she insists. She cuts them up and sprinkles them on top of the sorbet. Oh wow. That’s good. Yes, Lazy Cow Lime Sorbet is my new summer favourite.

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It takes me half an hour to get out the door. I stop by her bookshelf, impressed to see D.H. Lawrence and Timothy Findley well represented. I browse through her collection.

“Sorry, do you feel like I’m going through your underwear drawer?”

I’m always a bit unsettled when people go through my library at home… I have an eclectic collection, and wonder what it says about me exactly.
“No! I don’t mind.” Her life is an open book—a quality I admire for its simplicity and honesty. No two days the same. No two meals the same.

So Gail, about that soup… what was the base of it, exactly?
“Like it?” she says.
“Well, yes, obviously. It was amazing.”
She winks. “Enjoy it.”

I laugh. I’ve said the same thing. When I can’t quite remember what’s gone into it…what order or spices or technique I used while in the semi-trance state cooking can put me in… I kind of shrug helplessly.

Can’t be recreated? Yep, that’s life. Have to enjoy it while we’re in the moment.

Lesson learned.

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